UNSANE (2017, Steven Soderbergh)
Very early on in this air-tight psycho thriller, the female protagonist Sawyer enters the office of her boss at a new job. The establishing shot is of the photos on his desk — a wife, a family. Then the older, more powerful man sits her down and proceeds to brazenly hit on her, inviting her to a convention in New Orleans with just him, for two nights (“At the Hyatt!”) before she excuses herself. This scene comes after we’ve already heard her on the phone ordering a client around with an assertive tone — her co-worker thinks it’s a man she’s talking to, but Sawyer quickly points out it’s a “she.”
Gender dynamics continue to play a role throughout UNSANE, Soderbergh’s fourth success in a row, during what’s turning out to be a fruitful, compelling late period (following his masterful TV show THE KNICK, last year’s crackerjack LOGAN LUCKY, and the recent HBO miniseries — and techno-forward app experiment — MOSAIC). In fact, gender is virtually what it’s all about. Sawyer even gets her name from her grandfather. Throughout her life, which we learn a lot about in swift exposition, despite the entire movie taking place in less than a week, dominant men have exerted force over her, and the gaslighting is just beginning.
Not that female nurses and administrators don’t play a part too, and not that she doesn’t have male allies (Jay Pharoah is a standout), but the pattern is men closing in on Sawyer. Watch how deftly a surprising Matt Damon plays his detective character — in just a minute or two of screen time he rushes through his lines with so much fear-mongering and mansplaining that you wonder if he’s as dangerous as the stalker she’s complaining about.
Credit to Bernstein and Greer’s screenplay for tightly setting everything up on the quick. When Sawyer calls her mom at the beginning, she sings praises about her boss despite having just endured the gross come-on. That clues us in to why mom isn’t aware of David, and how much Sawyer is really keeping to herself. And this wouldn’t be a Soderbergh film if it didn’t come down to the corruption of American economics — in this case, health care, and how hospitals run insurance scams just to stay afloat. All of this is packed into an unsettling, disturbing, 98-minute pot-boiler shot on an iPhone 7 with ingenious compositions, editing, and movement. Even the shaky American accent Claire Foy struggles through doesn’t distract from a powerhouse lead performance, and while the plot resolves itself without any real unpredictability beyond the first hour, Soderbergh proves once again how comforting it is to give in to someone who knows what the hell he’s doing. By the time the suspense climaxes with a showdown in a disorienting blue padded cell, the maestro has shown that there are no constraints he can’t work within.